Norman's Conquest

An appreciation of Norman Van Aken, whose exuberance for tropical ingredients opened up a new world of cuisine

Think of Norman Van Aken as the Henri Rousseau of chefs. Like Rousseau, he is self-taught and self-made, a northerner seduced by the tropics who creates a fantasy world of bright colors and surprising combinations. In place of a nude woman reclining on a plush red divan in the jungle, substitute "rum- and pepper-painted grouper" sauced with a mojo of orange juice and diced mango, and accompanied by a poblano chile stuffed with a mash of plantain and white sweet potato. Something formal and French has collided with something wild and exotic.

At its core Van Aken's food is French cuisine, but because the award-winning chef—who was voted one of the country's best of 1997 by the James Beard Foundation—is cooking in South Florida, the food locker at Norman's Restaurant, in Coral Gables, is filled with tropical ingredients, such as conch, yuca, Florida yellowtail, stone crabs, and habanero chiles.

Paradoxically, this makes his menus more faithful to nouvelle cuisine than they would be if he were cooking mushroom cappuccino. The French movement's founders in the early seventies were enamored of eccentric flavor juxtapositions and, indeed, of tropical fruits—I still remember the brilliance of Alain Senderens' lobster and mango salad at L'Archestrate—but they also disseminated a vital precept that Van Aken has taken to heart. "People forget that in the nouvelle cuisine movement it isn't just ridiculously small portions artfully arranged," says Van Aken, a boyish 48-year-old with a winsome smile. "It's also freshness and local ingredients." Lyon's wild mushrooms and frogs' legs are not harvested in South Florida, but a lot of very interesting things are.

Which is not to say that Van Aken limits himself to tropical ingredients. "I am a child of the twentieth century—I have the wild mushrooms, the beautiful scallops, the caviar," he says. "People who come to the restaurant respect those things. They want foie gras." And they get foie gras: perhaps with a passionfruit coulis to cut the richness; or, if they are lucky, layered in a baroque construction of pan-seared, hand-harvested sea scallops, with meaty strands of braised oxtail, slices of smoked parsnips, and acidy oven-dried tomatoes, the whole bathed in a complex red-wine reduction.

A serious reader who once dreamed of becoming a writer instead of a chef, Van Aken has been the leader in conceptualizing what is now known as fusion cuisine. In fact, he takes credit for first using the word fusion, in an article he wrote in 1988, to denote a style of cooking. (Richard Krause and Wolfgang Puck were already doing French-Asian fusion cuisine, avant la lettre, at Santa Monica's Chinois on Main.) A few months later he coined the phrase New World Cuisine, in response to a marketing man's request for a label that would unite the area's talented chefs, who were creating a torrid hybrid of European and Caribbean cooking. "Somebody said, 'Floridian,' " he remembers. "I said, 'That seems so limited. What about New World?' We concurred. What bothers me is words like Floribbean, because they don't include South America." In the early nineties, when for two years he supervised the excellent (and now defunct) A Mano in South Beach, Van Aken decorated the kitchen with a large map that extended north to Palm Beach and down to the northern part of South America. "This is where we live," he told his cooks. "I want people to come and taste Florida." Yet his view is expansive enough to include spices from the Indies: peppercorns, cumin, star anise, cloves. "People think of New World Cuisine as fruits and tubers," he explains. "But what Columbus was looking for was spices. Spices are very much a part of it."

Like many South Floridians, Van Aken appreciates the place all the more because he was born elsewhere—on the wrong side of the tracks in Lake County, Illinois, about an hour's drive from Chicago. "When I grew up, it was farmland and trailer parks," he says. He and two sisters were raised by their grandmother and divorced mother, who worked as a waitress and later as a restaurant manager. It was natural, then, that Van Aken's first job was as a busboy. Before he found his way as a chef, however, he tried his hand as a construction worker, a flower peddler, and a carnival hand. He also put in two stints as a college student—first at Northern Illinois University, and then, in his first fling with the tropics, at the University of Hawaii. Van Aken was 20 when he started cooking professionally at an Illinois diner. There he met his future wife, Janet, who was waiting tables. They were dating when, in the spring of 1973, they set out independently for Florida—Norman to Key West, Janet to Fort Lauderdale. Eventually she joined him in Key West, and they've been together since. Their son, Justin, is now 19.

On the grill at Key West's Pier House, which remains one of the town's leading hotels and restaurants, Van Aken became serious about cooking. "I respected the chef and asked questions, trying to figure it out," he recalls of his salad days. "I could not apply that logic to the mechanics of a car or the construction of a building, but I could when it came to cuisine."

One day a younger colleague—a sous-chef—dropped the word velouté, and Van Aken, startled, asked, "How do you know that term?" It turned out that the sous-chef had attended culinary school, which Van Aken couldn't possibly afford. "Then why don't you read?" the other man inquired. "I do read," Van Aken replied, missing the point. "Why don't you read cookbooks?" asked the sous-chef.

That afternoon Van Aken began a new course of study; he went out and bought a copy of Theory and Practice of Cooking by James Beard, one of the two chefs he cites as his greatest influences. He then followed up by teaching himself the techniques of classic and nouvelle French cuisine, using cookbooks by such chefs as Michel Guérard and Jean and Pierre Troisgros. He especially treasured a book by Anthony Blake and Quentin Crewe, Great Chefs of France.

"It was during this period that I began to understand what it meant to be a chef," Van Aken says. "I could have gone to school. I could have gone to France. I was in Key West. I was welding local produce with classic methodology, mostly French. I was taking beautiful local swordfish but making a garniture or sauce that I had learned through Senderens. It was through French cooking that I came to understand food."

It was Alice Waters, the founder of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, who reawakened Van Aken to America. By the time he encountered her Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook he was back in Illinois, as executive chef of Sinclair's in Lake Forest. There he experimented with cooking regional American food like San Francisco cioppino, Maryland crab cakes, New Orleans étouffée, Key West conch chowder—what he calls "a broad, Whitmanesque approach to the cuisine."

He didn't find his focus until he returned to Key West in June 1985 as executive chef at Louie's Backyard. "It was there that I said, 'We're going to go straight ahead with Florida now, no more cioppino or Cajun dishes,' " he recalls. "Key West has such a strong personality. I thought that I should learn more about it. So I went back to the little Cuban and Bahamian cafés and began to think about a fusion of what I had learned about classic cuisine and what I loved about this more simple, direct, vibrant cuisine and the tropical pulse." Van Aken developed a personal style of cooking, which, if I had to fingerprint it, I would say ricochets richness and creaminess off the tang of acidity and hot pepper. "Other chefs might use a lot of herbs or spices," he says, "but the lift of acidity, especially in the heat of South Florida, is important."

His style is summed up nicely in his version of Cuban roast pork, which is marinated for three to four days and then slow-roasted until it is falling off the bone. "The pork is a vehicle for sauce-making, a very compliant partner," Van Aken explains. In his current rendition he uses a fairly traditional sour-orange marinade, but he adorns the pork with a trio of sauces dolloped with tablespoons, not ladles: a complex mole, a plantain sauce, and a sauce made of the black beans that are typically served as a side dish. "Pork tenderloin can be very lean, especially if the person orders it well-cooked," he says, "and the sauces help to overcome the dryness." To further complicate matters, he serves a corn salsa on the side. Then he wraps the tenderloin in pickled red onions and serves it with lemon and lime wedges. "That was one of the first things that fascinated me in Key West, that a wedge of lime would be served with meat," he says.

The pork tenderloin remains coherent, despite being one of Van Aken's most intricate dishes. "Paragraph and paragraph of sauce surround this central character, the big brute meat," he states. And it is a dish clearly rooted in Miami. "I move back and forth between a village sentiment and a global one," he says, "between focusing on where I live and on a fascination with ponzu, tamarind, and truffles."

After several lean years, Van Aken, in March 1995, inaugurated Norman's Restaurant—the place whose name says he is free to do things his way. Since then he has joined the very small and high-powered league in which Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Wolfgang Puck, Charlie Trotter, Daniel Boulud, and Thomas Keller are playing. "It is a restaurant that's certainly one of the ten best in the country for the quality of the cooking and the excitement on the plate," says Charlie Trotter, who got his first kitchen job with Van Aken at Sinclair's in 1982. When I asked him to describe Van Aken's cooking at the time they first met, Trotter said, "It was more or less a version of what you see today—not as sophisticated, but with the same emphasis on ultrafreshness; ultraseasonality; the use of clean, pure product; having flavor be of the utmost importance. Norman was very curious and was always asking questions."

To track Van Aken's progress you can study his beautiful but daunting cookbook, Norman's New World Cuisine (Random House, 1997; $50); or, more enjoyably, go to Coral Gables and compare his latest creations with some of the great earlier items that have remained on the menu—such as the rum-painted grouper, which he introduced in Key West in 1986.

"The grouper is built like a three-chord harmony," he explains. "A sauce of toasted Tellicherry pepper and sugar and rum paints the fish. And there's a sauce with the sweetness of mango and orange juice, and habanero chiles. As a side there's the poblano chile filled with creamy boniato—a Cuban sweet potato—and plantain mash. So there's sweetness wrapped in the heat of the poblano, the sweetness of the sauce given a zap by the habanero, and the paint for the fish is a one-two of sugar and pepper, along with soy, lemon zest, lemon juice, and rum. That dish is primary colors bouncing off each other sharply."

I had the superb grouper for lunch, and preceded it with one of Van Aken's more complex inventions, a signature dish called Turks and Caicos cracked conch chowder, with saffron, toasted coconut, star anise, and "clouds." It's a heavenly composition that can support almost as much exegesis as a John Donne sonnet.

"I had been making the dish for a very long time, and I thought it was done when we opened here," he says. "Then when I read about Ferran Adrià, the Spanish chef at El Bulli, and the foams [derived from juices] that he uses, we decided to experiment with the aerosol cartridge machine." (See Departures July/August 1999 for a profile of Adrià.)

"The conch chowder is a very complicated seesaw between acidity and richness in a marine environment. For years I had been making it with tomatoes. There's a recipe in that James Beard book for billi bi, a mussels-based soup, in which he uses mussels and orange juice and cream. I decided to try to make a billi bi with coconut milk and cream. I sauté a lot of vegetables and then add clams, mussels, and star anise, which is frequently the elusive ingredient in a dish. When I smelled star anise I thought of orange juice at the same time—that becomes the acidity. The liquor from the clams and mussels makes the stock of the dish, with the vegetables and conch. We have had it on the menu from the beginning at Norman's, but when we got the cartridge machine I thought we needed to add a cloud of coconut. It didn't confuse things; it made the dish more memorable, to me at least. Which to any person practicing an art form is what it comes down to."

Van Aken's true bond isn't to his fellow chefs in South Florida (see "The Mango Gang") but to the place itself. One morning I accompanied him to the local Palacio de los Jugos, a Hispanic produce and juice store. He rushed about like a kid in a candy store. As we passed a box of sapodillas, a small fruit with a rough brown skin, he said, "We make ice cream with them. They taste like root beer." We walked by the egg fruit, or canistel (another dessert ingredient), but he was more excited by the mammee (sapote). "Here's one of my favorites," he said, enthusiastically palpating the brown-skinned oval fruits to determine ripeness. "It's wonderful for flan because it's got a creamy richness on its own."

He put some aside to buy for the restaurant, and we ordered batidos, a drink made from fruit and milk. He chose tamarind. I opted for guanabana, also called soursop, a custardy fruit that resembles a cherimoya. As we sipped, Van Aken grew philosophical. "In the sixties, avocados and artichokes were pretty esoteric outside California," he said. "And in the seventies, who knew what radicchio was? And now portobello mushrooms are everywhere. It's exploding." Here in Miami with the father of New World Cuisine, surrounded by strange knobby tubers and prickly aromatic fruits, I felt I was at ground zero of the explosion.

Norman's, 21 Almeria Avenue, Coral Gables; 305-446-6767; fax 305-446-7909. Dinner for two, excluding wine, tax, and service: $110.


The Mango Gang

There are other tropical fusion restaurants in South Florida, but Van Aken is both the pioneer and the clear leader. The Cafe Marquesa (600 Fleming Street; 305-292-1244; $100) in Key West, with Van Aken's protégé, Susan Ferry, at the helm, is excellent, as is Darrel and Oliver's Cafe Maxx (2601 East Atlantic Boulevard; 954-782-0606; $100) in Pompano Beach, a seashell's throw from Boca Raton. Ferry's yellowtail snapper, which she breads with Japanese panko crumbs, sauces with an emulsification of ginger, wine, miso, and olive oil, and adorns with a salsa of pineapple, papaya, sweet pepper, red onion, and chile poblano, is an extremely satisfying dish; as is Café Maxx's pompano fillet, which a chef with the Dickensian name Oliver Saucy dots with citrus butter and sets in a pool of orange segments, roasted peppers, and pencil-thin asparagus. Mark Militello, who oversees both Mark's Las Olas (1032 East Las Olas Boulevard; 954-463-1000; $120) in Fort Lauderdale and the new Mark's At The Park (344 Plaza Real; 561-395-0770; $100) in nearby Boca Raton, is also a talented chef, adapting local ingredients to Mediterranean-style cooking. I enjoyed his "monkfish osso buco," but it is merely a transposition (relying on the visual likeness between the cut of veal and monkfish) of the Milanese recipe. Still, it was far better than the meal I had at the Blue Door (1685 Collins Avenue; 305-674-6400; $140) at the Delano hotel in Miami Beach, a beautiful dining room overseen by Claude Troisgros. Although the food was delicious going down—stone crab with guacamole, a giant ravioli filled with pumpkin mousse and topped with hazelnut sauce, mahi-mahi with cashew nuts and roasted hearts of palm, enormous shrimp in a pomegranate sauce—there was too much butter in every dish. The one truly atrocious meal that I endured from a member of the so-called Mango Gang was in a fiendishly hard-to-find shopping-mall restaurant, Chef Allen's (19088 Northeast 29th Avenue; 305-935-2900; $120) in Aventura, where Allen Susser was present, but everything—the dowdy room, the inept service, the oversalted and otherwise tasteless food—was an overpriced embarrassment.
Prices listed are for two at dinner, excluding wine, tax, and service.

Arthur Lubow wrote about the best new chefs of southern France in our September/October issue.